Poetry and Jazz Make a Harmonic Hybrid

by Jean Schiffman

Poetry/Jazz Festival, a co-presentation of SFJAZZ and LitQuake, is a local highlight of National Poetry Month.

“I want poets to… let go of their concept of how the poem is supposed to be, to surrender to the spirit of improvisation, so the poem can breathe and become a whole new poem,” declares SFJAZZ poet laureate and longtime activist Genny Lim, producer of the SFJAZZ Poetry Festival. The festival, co-presented by Litquake, showcases poets and jazz musicians onstage together in a spontaneous performing-art hybrid.

“I’m shooting for an organic process that blurs the boundary between word and song, poetry and music,” continues Lim, a sometime playwright (her “Paper Angels” was presented on PBS’s American Playhouse in 1985) and acclaimed jazz poet who has collaborated with such musicians as bassist Herbie Lewis and pianist Jon Jang, has performed at festivals and venues worldwide and has been featured in several documentaries.

Instituted in 2014 under the direction of its first poet laureate, Ishmael Reed, the Poetry Festival comprises three 30-minute poet/musician combinations over four days. Largely without rehearsing, the performers take the stage in SFJAZZ’s 100-seat Joe Henderson Lab (a “hot room” with perfect acoustics, says Lim).

This year’s festival is bookended by two illustrious poets: on opening night, former California poet laureate Al Young, whom Lim calls “the Duke Ellington of letters,” and who is the much-honored author of 22 books of various genres; and, playing piano at the closing matinee, Ishmael Reed (“just a lion—a political satirist, a playwright, an essayist,” says Lim).

In between is a multicultural and multigenerational lineup of poets, rappers, spoken-word artists and jazz musicians, many among them part of San Francisco’s underground arts scene, many of them social activists as well: Arlene Biala with musician Brittany Biala; Royal Kent with Copus Multimedia (his duo with composer/pianist Wendy Loomis); also Paul Flores, Tongo Eisen-Martin, QR Hand, novelist and hip-hop artist Aya De Leon, Tony Robles, rapper Equipto, the musical ensemble the Broun Fellinis, “drum strategist” Marshall Trammel and saxophonist Francis Wong. The festival includes a tribute to Charles Mingus and Native American sax player Jim Pepper.

Genny Lim herself appears twice on the program. “When you’re working with a musician,” she says, “it becomes a dialogue. What the musician hears might be quite different from what you hear in your poem.” When both are onstage together, poets often find that they need to let go of the original meter, or of a long and unwieldy line or even a word. “If the poet ignores the music, there’s going to be a clash,” Lim notes. “Jazz musicians create a kind of alchemy in the moment. For the poet to be put in that moment of reckoning—to be pushed into the unknown, where the music forces you to hear things differently—you have to be open to doing that.”

In the mid-20th century, when Jack Kerouac and the other fabled Beats performed what was called jazz poetry, they’d recite in coffee houses with recorded bebop in the background. But Lim’s specific inspiration is the late 20th-century writer Langston Hughes. “He was heavily influenced by black music—spirituals, blues—and you hear that in his cadences, his phrases, his references,” she says. Lim, a native San Franciscan who grew up listening to Chinese music and opera with her immigrant parents, moved to New York for a few years, where she hung out with jazz musicians and heard Charles Mingus and Art Blakey and other jazz greats.

The theme for this year’s festival is wordology, a word that suddenly came into Lim’s head and made her think of a similar word, ornithology, the title of a Charlie “Bird” Parker tune for which he took the standard “How High the Moon” and imposed a whole new melody over the original chords. “That’s exactly what I want to do,” Lim says—poetry over music, music over poetry, “taking something old and making it new, the two interacting.”

The Poetry Festival is inherently part of SFJAZZ’s DNA, says executive/artistic director Randall Kline, who founded the organization in 1983; its educational outreach includes teaching poetry and jazz basics in middle schools. He sees the intersection of jazz and other art forms just about everywhere: Art is about rhythm, he says, and you can perceive rhythm in writing and in painting as well as in poetry. And just as in jazz there can be looseness and there can be rigid structure, so too can poetry encompass both ends of the spectrum.

At its best, says Lim, the musicians in a jazz poetry performance are sensitive to poets’ rhythms, cadences and styles. But still, at times she has told her musician-partner beforehand, “This is what I hear, this tone, this sound, this rhythm,” and then: “I start to recite and suddenly they do something that’s a contradiction to what I thought I’d conveyed! I’d listen for a while, and sometimes I’d drop entire stanzas that I realized are irrelevant to what I’m really trying to say, or I’ll repeat a line I never thought of repeating, and it would come together so perfectly.” Poets and musicians have different languages, different instruments, she muses, so a musician’s interpretation is going to be different from the poet’s word-based concept. “But that’s what makes it so exciting! … You’re changed, you’re humbled, you’re transformed. For me, it’s a metaphor of our political landscape.” These days, she observes, so often nobody is really listening.

But when jazz musicians and poets harmonize, everything clicks. Everyone listens.

April 5 → 8


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